My Name Is Red
We embark on our journey in Istanbul, and to set us off to a good start we’re opening our list with Nobel prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. His mystery My Name is Red is set in the splendour of sixteenth-century Istanbul, where a manuscript illuminator has been murdered. The artist had been commissioned to work on a manuscript celebrating the Sultan, but he was asked to paint in the European style—a dangerous proposition in a religious culture that doesn’t tolerate figurative art. Incorporating romance along with a philosophical exploration of art, the novel’s style is postmodern and metafictional; its ever-changing cast of narrators includes the murder victim, a coin, and the colour red. The setting of My Name is Red is key to the plot’s central conflict, with Istanbul as a meeting point of East and West, a place of mingling traditions. Pamuk allows us to explore this fascinating and decadent culture through its art, and shows the ugly side to creating beautiful objects.
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The Shadow Land
Bringing us into Eastern Europe is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land. Alexandra Boyd, a young American woman, is grieving the death of her brother and, seeking an escape, moves to Sofia in Bulgaria. On arriving she helps an elderly couple into a taxi, accidentally taking one of their bags with her. This lands her in the unenviable position of finding herself in possession of an urn filled with a stranger’s ashes. Alexandra sets out to solve the puzzle of the deceased stranger’s identity, and return the urn to his family. This journey takes her across the landscapes of Bulgaria, from the colourful streets of Plovdiv to the breathtaking expanse of the Rila Mountains—and on into to the shadowy remains of Bulgaria’s communist past. Kostova conjures up the gut-wrenching reality of this history, carefully balancing it within her suspenseful atmosphere. Kostova had written about Bulgaria’s landscape and culture in her much-acclaimed novel The Historian, where she explored the myth of Vlad the Impaler. She captures the country’s culture and history once again in The Shadow Land, a gripping tale of mystery and secrets.
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The Last Book
Our journey deeper into Eastern Europe brings us to Belgrade and to further shadows of Communist rule. Crime fiction is still a young genre in Eastern Europe: under the Communist governments of the mid-twentieth century crime novels were seen as unsuitable entertainment which questioned the success of the Communist State. During this time, Agatha Christie was herself one of the only crime authors widely read in Eastern Europe, considered acceptable because the crime in her stories could be seen as a reflection of Western decadence. Since then, the genre’s popularity has surged in this region; however new writers are only just emerging and many of them are still awaiting English translations.
While we wait for more crime novels set in Belgrade to become available in English, it seems the best way to explore the area—and its native talent— is through an author with deep links to the city. Zoran Zivkovic is a writer, translator, and publisher as well as professor of creative writing at Belgrade University. His crime novel The Last Book begins with the tone of a European noir but soon leads the reader into a fantastical world of metafiction, as literature-loving police inspector Dejan Lukic investigates a series of murders, each linked by the fact that every victim was reading the same mysterious book shortly before they were killed. Zivkovic’s story draws us into a world of secret apocalyptic societies, and murders inspired by Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It’s a wonderful blend of literary imagination and thrilling action, and one that reflects the creative bent typical of Zivkovic’s fiction.
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As we move swiftly along into Italy, our first stop is Venice. Of course, when talking about crime novels set in Italy, and in particularly in Venice, it is almost impossible not to mention Donna Leon and her famous first novel Death at La Fenice. However, as Leon is so well recognised and loved, I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight another series of crime novels set in Italy.
Dead Lagoon is the fourth in Michael Dibdin’s series centered on detective Aurelio Zen. This book sees Zen take a posting to his native city of Venice. He has been hired by an American family to find their missing relative, dead or alive. However, both the living and the dead present stumbling blocks to Zen’s case, as he uncovers more and more corpses, finding himself increasingly in conflict with the people around him.
The atmosphere is sinister and the detective skeptical. Dibdin’s story is rich in detail, from the characters to the socio-political setting. Unlike Leon, who gives us the lavish beauty and splendour of Venice, Dibdin presents us with a corrupt and filthy city, reeking with sewage. The book, like the city, seems half-submerged in its own murky landscape. Yet the city remains fascinating and even alluring, through Dibdin’s elegant descriptions. His prose is stylish and seductive as it leads us down Venice’s labyrinthine waterways.
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A Private Venus
Our next stop brings us to the very beginnings of Italian noir. Much like what we saw in Eastern Europe, in the mid-twentieth century Italy’s fascist regime suppressed crime fiction. However, the 1960s saw author Giorgio Scerbanenco kickstart the genre of Italian noir. At the time, Italy was experiencing great economic growth and prosperity, but in his Milano Quartet, Scerbanenco revealed a darker side to the lush lifestyles.
In the first of this quartet, A Private Venus, Scerbanenco’s leading man, Duca Lamberti, is a disgraced and disbarred doctor who has managed to get a job in Milan minding the son of a millionaire, attempting to keep the young man sober. As you might expect, things will not go smoothly; Lamberti finds his charge’s past holds a dark secret and the shadow of death. Like Dibdin, Scerbanenco revels in the shadowy side of a city known for its high fashion and wealth.
This is everything you expect from a noir novel (including, unfortunately, some noticeably outdated attitudes towards women and the LGBT community). Yet Scerbanenco’s brutal and sleek writing is instantly gripping, capturing the underbelly of greed and corruption hidden behind Milan’s fashionable veneer.
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Moving from Milan to the Swiss Alps and the city of Lausanne, we are brought out of gritty Italian noir into somewhat lighter fare, perhaps more familiar to Christie enthusiasts. In fact, Tracee de Hahn’s first entry in her Agnes Lüthi Mysteries series has some noticeable similarities to Murder On the Orient Express: a luxurious setting with a cast of characters from a range of backgrounds, caught together in the middle of a blizzard with a murder on their hands. Detective Agnes Lüthi, having just moved from Financial Crime to the Violent Crimes Unit, is called out on her first homicide. The scene of the crime is the Château Vallotton, a medieval castle on Lake Geneva, with a treasure trove of art and artefacts. The victim is a young woman who had been appraising the many beautiful objects, but neither the family, the servants, nor the neighbours seem willing to provide answers. So, with everything against her—including the weather—Lüthi must get to the bottom of it on her own. The sumptuous setting of a locked-room mystery is wonderfully captured by de Hahn, who capitalizes on all the ominous potential for dark corridors and hidden rooms that a medieval chateau has to offer. This is definitely one for cold nights and warm blankets, as the icy chill of the landscape, caught in the worst storm in decades, permeates the novel.
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Have Mercy on Us All
Arriving in Paris, crime fiction aficionados will naturally think of Georges Simenon’s detective Maigret. However, in more recent times another investigator has come on the scene: Fred Vargas’s Commissaire Adamsberg. Vargas is an acclaimed crime writer, and her writing follows a grand tradition, so beloved in stories like The Hound of the Baskervilles. Here there are indeed crimes and murder cases, but they often carry a threat of supernatural elements that is both ominous and tantalising. Her leading detective however feels very real, even when his head is in the clouds. Adamsberg is not a flashy genius detective like Holmes, or even an impressive intellectual like Poirot. He is slow, even lumbering, but he has the ability to let the loose pieces of a puzzle tumble around inside his head until they all fall into place.
Have Mercy On Us All is the fourth in Vargas’ Adamsberg series but it was the first to be translated into English, and it remains an excellent place to start. Here contemporary and historical Paris meet, as warnings of the Black Death appear on the streets of the modern-day city. This soon goes beyond a riddle for interested medievalists, as blackened and flea-bitten corpses begin to appear. Adamsberg must uncover the cause of the bubonic threat before hysteria sets in throughout the city. Vargas’ story and characters are wonderfully captivating, and it’s easy to imagine yourself wandering along the Seine with Commissaire Adamsberg, wondering how it can all make sense.
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The Man Who Was Thursday
While Paris is the iconic end (or start) of the Orient Express journey, the route actually went on to Calais, which was Poirot’s destination as he was making his way to London. In fact, in order to distinguish Christie’s book from a popular novel released around the same time by Graham Greene called The Stamboul Train, her novel was renamed for the American market as Murder in the Calais Coach. Given the importance of this detail, I thought it fitting to bring us all the way to Calais. For this final selection we’re turning to a contemporary and friend of Christie’s, G.K. Chesterton.
In the world of crime fiction, Chesterton is best remembered for his Father Brown stories, but here we’re turning to his thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s not quite under the category of a whodunnit yet Chesterton’s story is nonetheless filled with intrigue and danger. At the meeting point of poetry and politics, The Man Who Was Thursday follows Gabriel Syme, an undercover detective attempting to thwart a secret society known as the Central Anarchist Council. He infiltrates the group, becoming ‘Thursday,’ one of the seven council members. However, he soon discovers he’s not the only one in disguise, and so a frantic Syme must unravel the illusions around him before he can prevent the head of the council, ‘Sunday,’ from carrying out atrocities. Chesterton’s story opens in London but as the anarchists head toward Paris to cause… well, anarchy, the action comes to a head at Calais. Chesterton’s prose has all his usual panache, blending humour with a sense of terror. There’s an impression of reality slipping out from under your fingers.
The Man Who Was Thursday brings us to the end of our trail of mystery and crime, and concludes with a suitably dramatic unveiling of the truth—one that would make Christie, and indeed Poirot, proud.
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